Dribbling Circles Around FIFA

On October 1, 2014, in FIFA, Soccer, Sports Law Journal, by admin

Dribbling Circles Around FIFA: How F.C. Barcelona and Luis Suarez Got Around FIFA Sanctions

By Patrick Doughty, on October 1, 2014

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/montannito/

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/montannito/


This summer, a soccer club prohibited from signing players signed a player who was prohibited from playing soccer. Perennial Spanish soccer power, F.C. Barcelona (Barça) of Spain’s La Liga, purchased the rights to the sensational striker Luis Suarez from Liverpool F.C. of the English Premier League for £75 million.[i]


The Uruguayan striker had an impressive showing for Liverpool last season, scoring thirty-one goals and becoming one of the most popular players in the Premier League, the top professional league in England.[ii] However, things took a different turn during a group-stage match between Uruguay and Italy at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. During that game Suarez bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, reacted quickly by handing the striker a nine-match ban from international games, as well as a four-month prohibition on all “football-related activities,” including administrative activities.[iii]


In Barça’s case, two months before the World Cup, FIFA banned the club from all transfer activities for two transfer periods, due to violations of signing international minor players.[iv] Under FIFA regulations, the transfer of minors under the age of eighteen is prohibited between teams outside the player’s home country.[v] After an investigation, FIFA determined that Barça had violated this policy on several occasions during a four-year period.[vi]


So, how did Barça acquire someone who was banned from all “football-related activities” while the club itself was also banned from signing any players? Barça had appealed its sanction.


When the sanctions against the Spanish giants were announced in April, Barça appealed the decision to the FIFA Appeal Committee.[vii] The appeal was given “suspensive effect,” which delayed the ban from taking effect until January, allowing Barça to acquire players during the 2014 summer transfer period.[viii] Barça made the most of its temporary reprieve, spending a club-record €157 million.[ix] The FIFA Appeal Committee eventually denied Barça’s challenge in late August and reinstated the ban, effective for the January 2015 and summer 2015 transfer periods.[x]


Photo cred: https://www.flickr.com/photos/30050501@N07/

Photo cred: https://www.flickr.com/photos/30050501@N07/

Luis Suarez’s situation, however, is less straightforward. Suarez’s sanction remains unclear about what “football activity” the ban covers or how the ban will be enforced. Nonetheless, Suarez, while banned, signed a five-year deal with Barça, who will pay Suarez about £200,000 a week, even though the official ban prohibited Suarez from participating in administrative activities.[xi] Under the sanctions, it was unclear whether “administrative activities” covered transfers.


Further, Players’ unions, such as Fifpro, believed the sanctions “lack[ed] clarity,” and the Professional Footballers’ Association (“PFA”) provided a list of activities it believed Suarez could and could not do.[xii] According to PFA’s list, Suarez could “sign for another team[,]. . . . talk about football on social media,” and could engage in other similar activities.[xiii] In light of the confusion, FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee Chairman, Claudio Sulser, said, “[Suarez] cannot have any activity related to football, but . . . the sanction is not linked to transfer rights.”[xiv]


FIFA clarified that Suarez’s sanctions were not intended to punish Liverpool by forcing the team to keep a player who cannot play for four months or to miss out on a £75 million transfer fee.[xv] In the end, FIFA is saying that signing a soccer player is not a “football activity,” but a financial activity. Barça was willing to invest a large sum of capital for a player capable of massive returns, while the team knew full well of the player’s highly publicized risks.


Barça’s last significant signing before the FIFA-imposed transfer ban was for a player who was prevented from entering the stadium until his own appeal was resolved.[xvi] Suarez cannot play for Barça until October 25th, when his four-month suspension ends. His first opponent: Barça’s archrival and title-contender Real Madrid. It appears that this financial activity will have more of an effect on this season’s title race than any football activity Barça made this past summer.



[i] See Michael Caley, Luis Suarez Likely to Succeed at Barcelona After Transfer From Liverpool, Wash. Post (July 18, 2014), http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fancy-stats/wp/2014/07/18/luis-suarez-likely-to-succeed-at-barcelona-after-transfer-from-liverpool/ (referencing transfer price paid by F.C. Barcelona to acquire Luis Suarez); see also Oliver Todd, Liverpool Did ‘Everything’ to Keep Luis Suarez Before His £75 million Transfer to Barcelona, Says Brendan Rogers, Daily Mail (July 16, 2014, 5:59 PM), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2695140/Brendan-Rodgers-says-Liverpool-did-Luis-Suarez-75million-Barcelona.html (confirming £75 million transfer fee).

[ii] See Caley, supra note 1 (describing how prolific Luis Suarez was in 2013-2014 Premier League season).

[iii] See Media Release, FIFA, Luis Suarez Suspended for Nine Matches and Banned for Four Months From Any Football-Related Activity (June 26, 2014), http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/news/y=2014/m=6/news=luis-suarez-suspended-for-nine-matches-and-banned-for-four-months-from-2386354.html (listing sanctions imposed by FIFA on Luis Suarez). See also Sam Borden, Uruguay Star Barred 9 Games and 4 Months in Biting Incident, NY Times (June 26, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/27/sports/worldcup/world-cup-2014-suarez-barred-by-fifa-for-latest-bite.html (reporting suspension for Luis Suarez “is the longest World Cup suspension issued for an on-field action”). This was not the first time Suarez had bitten an opponent, in fact he bit players while playing for Liverpool and Dutch-team AFC Ajax. Luis Suarez Bite: Liverpool Striker Apologises to Branislav Ivanovic, BBC.com, http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/22242464 (last updated Apr. 21, 2013, 8:22 PM) (reporting another biting incident involving Luis Suarez and Chelsea F.C. defender Branislav Ivanovic during game in 2013).

[iv] See Media Release, FIFA, Spanish FA, FC Barcelona Sanctioned for International Transfers of Minors (Apr. 2, 2014), http://www.fifa.com/aboutfifa/organisation/news/newsid=2313003/ (outlining FIFA’s sanctions imposed on F.C. Barcelona for transferring minors). The two official FIFA transfer periods, commonly referred to as transfer windows, occur the three months in between the end of the season and the start of the next season and one month during the middle of the season. FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (2014), art. 3.6.1, available at http://www.fifa.com/mm/document/affederation/administration/01/95/83/85/regulationsstatusandtransfer_e.pdf (describing duration of transfer periods under FIFA regulations).

[v] See id.; see also FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (2014), art. 6.19.1, available at http://www.fifa.com/mm/document/affederation/administration/01/95/83/85/regulationsstatusandtransfer_e.pdf (“International transfers of players are only permitted if the player is over the age of 18.”).

[vi] See Media Release, supra note 4 (explaining club suspension due to violations of article 6.19.1 between 2009 and 2013).

[vii] See Barcelona: FIFA Transfer Ban Put on Hold Pending Appeal, BBC.com (Apr. 23, 2014, 11:00 AM), http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/27126522 (indicating club’s intent to follow through with promise to appeal transfer ban).

[viii] See Media Release, FIFA, FC Barcelona Appeal Granted Suspensive Effect (Apr. 23, 2014), http://www.fifa.com/aboutfifa/organisation/news/newsid=2322794/ (informing of the club’s appeal and that delaying of the suspension of transfer activity, due to timing of the next transfer period).

[ix] See Renato Goncalves, Barcelona Set Club Record in This Summer’s Transfer Market, SB Nation (Sept. 9, 2014, 6:00 AM), http://www.barcablaugranes.com/2014/9/9/6124243/barcelona-set-club-record-in-this-summers-transfer-market (tracking club’s spending and selling over 2014 summer transfer period).

[x] See Media Release, FIFA, FIFA Rejects Appeals of FC Barcelona and Spanish FA in Relation to Transfers of Minors (Aug. 20, 2014), http://www.fifa.com/aboutfifa/organisation/news/newsid=2423945/index.html (explaining that FIFA Appeal Committee rejected club’s appeal and that transfer ban will go into effect during upcoming January transfer window).

[xi] See Tom Hopkins, Luis Suarez Will Lose £3 Million From His Barcelona Salary If He Bites Another Player, Mirror.com (July 12, 2014, 11:00 PM), http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/luis-suarez-lose-3million-barcelona-3848982 (estimating weekly salary Luis Suarez will earn under his contract with F.C. Barcelona).

[xii] See Simon Stone, Luis Suarez Football Ban Lacks Clarity, Says Players’ Union, BBC.com (July 9, 2014, 4:20 PM), http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/28163286 (quoting Fifpro and other unions reactions to Suarez’s sanctions).

[xiii] See id. (describing list of Footballers’ Association interpretations of what Luis Suarez’s can and cannot do under ban of “football activities” handed down by FIFA). Some of the “cannot’s” listed, included: use of team facilities, participate in charity games, and visit children hospitals on behalf of Liverpool. See id.

[xiv] See FIFA Confirms Suarez is Free to Join Barca, ESPNFC.com (July 3, 2014), http://www.espnfc.com/league-name/story/1930479/headline (describing press conference in which Chairman of FIFA Disciplinary Committee clarified that Suarez could have team physical, customary requirement before transfer to another club).

[xv] See id. (quoting Sulser’s response when asked why FIFA imposed penalty on Liverpool by saying, “[t]hat’s [an] opinion. It’s a sanction against the player. That is the risk if you are a player and you are sanctioned at the World Cup. I agree with you it’s a problem for Liverpool, but the sanction is in the disciplinary regulations.”).

[xvi] See Luis Suarez’s Appeal Against Bite Ban Rejected by FIFA, BBC.com (July 10, 2014, 3:01 PM), http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/28251964 (reporting FIFA rejected Luis Suarez’s appeal against his biting ban).


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